Monday, September 28, 2009

Why Doesn't She Just Leave?

Why doesn't she just leave? Friends, loved ones, strangers, all jump on to this question as soon as they hear of a woman being victimized by an intimate partner. It sounds so logical and so simple. If you are being hurt, walk away.

The simple question, however, glosses over some very complicated dynamics. The professional who works with those dealing with domestic violence (DV) cringes whenever the question comes up. The victim hears accusation and blame in the question; indeed she has probably asked herself the same thing.

So why doesn't she leave? Asking the question belies any understanding of the insidious nature of intimate partner violence. Just as we have learned that rape is about violence and not sex, we have come to understand that domestic violence is about control. It is that very control and nature the nature of the one who wields it, that grooms, charms and creates a world that is so unbalanced, off kilter and dangerous, it often makes it more threatening, indeed, often times lethal, for her to leave. Like an animal caught on shifting ice, she has to try to navigate her unsteady world, trying to determine whether she can really run, hobbled, across the slippery surface and actually jump the chasm onto solid ground.

Asking the simple question discounts what has happened to her so far in the relationship. It dismisses considerations of what kind of social support she may have. It fails to factor in what kind of abuser he is and instead reinforces self-blame. It disregards the very real concern of whether it is more dangerous to stay or leave. It dismisses most victims' extraordinary concerns about what is best for the children. The question reflects stereotypes of domestic violence and its victims.

Most importantly, however, the question makes domestic violence her problem, not the abuser's. Responsibility for the abuse should rest on his actions, not on her response to it.
Why doesn't she just leave? Why does he abuse? Simple questions, but the answers are complex and varied.

This compilation of women's stories addresses the question. Although there are as many stories as there are cases of domestic violence, we have categorized them into sections that reflect some of the more common reasons women are trapped in abusive relationships. If she leaves, will there be a relative or friend or safe shelter she can run to? Can she take her children with her? Will her faith community support her or will they pressure her to return?
Economic reasons loom very large for a woman who has been through trauma. She may have lost her job or been pressured to quit by her abuser. Does she have any money to keep her family going if she leaves? Where will she live? How will she get the children to school? How will she get or keep a job that pays enough to live? If she leaves, how will she afford a divorce or seek protection? What about lawyers and counselors, health insurance? Will she be uprooting her children and losing her home?

Legal reasons can be huge impediments for women who try to leave. When an abuser tell her she will not get custody of her children, she has every reason to believe her abuser will do whatever it take to wrest control back from her, the woman who tries to get a divorce or custody. Abusers often use the courts to harass and revictimize. Judges, guardians ad litem, defense attorneys and even divorce attorneys often have little of no education about domestic violence and can blame the victim for her own abuse or pressure her to give in to the abuser's demands, rather than continue to fight a difficult man.

Finally, yet paradoxically, safety concerns may keep the woman from leaving. The abuse she lives with may be daunting, but she may make the decision that is better to keep living with it than to risk the very real possibility that it will be even worse if she tries to leave. Many victims are kept in place by significant threats that they will never see their children again if they leave, or that if the abuser cannot have them, no one will. In reality, leaving can be the most dangerous time an abused woman faces, and many women do not get out alive. Three-fourths of homicide victims in one study were women who had left or tried to leave abusive partners in the last year.

The complexity of the issue is staggering. Answering the simple question, "why doesn't she just leave?" is equally complicated.

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